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ASU project to give satellites a shared, optical language

New DARPA effort will enable communication between low orbiting satellites — both with each other and their partners on the ground

Satellite seen from space as it orbits Earth.
August 10, 2022

In military operations and other communications channels of a sensitive nature, stovepiping is a structure that keeps the flow of information within a specific organization. 

When it comes to communication between satellites and their interested parties on the ground, stovepiping can be counterproductive.

Space-BACN, or Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node, a new initiative from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), seeks to develop low-cost, high-speed, configurable optical data links that can connect low Earth orbit satellites with each other and with their Earth-bound proprietors, which can come from military, government, corporate and private sectors. 

Arizona State University’s Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures (WISCA) was awarded $5.4 million for the first phase of the program in the reconfigurable modem technical area. WISCA is the only university research center recipient of a Space-BACN project, with the others going to major corporations.

“Our new processor technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications,” explained ASU Professor Daniel Bliss, director of WISCA and lead investigator on the project. “Optical communications enables the exchange of large quantities of data between satellites. However, there are many standards, and these communications approaches evolve over time.

“The WISCA team will enable a revolution in flexible space optical communications for the next generation of low-cost satellites by developing a new class of processor that can nearly instantly reconfigure while being almost as efficient as a full-custom, single-purpose chip.

“In developing our new modem processor, we provide a path to quickly switch between standards and even implement new standards after the system is built and launched.” 

Previous WISCA work with DARPA includes the Domain-Focused Advanced Software-Reconfiguration Heterogeneous (DASH) System on Chip (SoC), which built a new framework for high-performance, embedded, heterogeneous computer processors with increased power and higher efficiency.

“Space-BACN will further the processor development we did for DASH and has the potential to efficiently provide the embedded processing capabilities needed for a wide range of applications, from 6G to flying cars,” Bliss said.

“In an attempt to celebrate the exciting advances of the Space-BACN program, we entitled our project: Configurable Optical Communications via Heterogeneous-processing Optimized Node (COCHON).”

Other partners in the WISCA project are the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Arizona, Jariet Technologies and DASH Tech Integrated Circuits, an ASU technology spin-out. 

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